Chasing galaxies. An Italian research story

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I am an astrophysicist, and my research focuses on the formation and evolution of galaxies. In particular, I develop analytical and numerical models that allow us to study the physical processes that drive galaxy formation and evolution as a function of cosmic time, in a cosmological context.

I completed my studies in Physics at the University of Naples in 2001. Soon after, I moved to Germany, where I got my PhD in 2004 from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. After completing my PhD studies, I was offered a post doc position at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, where I carried out my research until early 2009. During those years, I also spent long periods in other institutes, both in Europe and in the United States.

The experience abroad has been significant, both for my personal and professional life. I travelled and worked a lot. I had the opportunity to visit several research institutes and to collaborate with the major experts in my research field. I made many new friends, coming from a different culture and speaking a different language. There were nice and bad moments, like it always happens.

In 2007, the European Research Council was launched, and the very first proposal focused on ERC Starting grants. These aim to support potential "research leaders" who are about to start conducting independent research and to establish their own research group. At the time of this first call, I was almost at the end of my third year of my postdoctoral fellowship. Although it was perhaps somewhat early to start thinking of establishing an independent research group, I decided to try, and to profit of this opportunity to come back to Italy. The very first call for the ERC Starting Grant received more than 9000 applications. The selection process was very long (much longer than it is now): I submitted the first application in April 2007, then a second one in September. I had an interview in Brussels in November, and was finally invited to prepare a grant agreement in May of 2008. I finally moved to Trieste to work on the project funded by the ERC in February 2009.

The project focused on a question very similar to the nature versus nurture debate in psychology: to what extent are the observed physical properties of galaxies determined by processes at play when they become part of special environments (like groups or clusters of galaxies)? And to what extent are they determined by the fact that evolution occurs at a different pace in different environments? The group established thanks to the funding received by the ERC worked on this issue using a combination of theoretical techniques and detailed comparisons with observational data at different cosmic epochs. The project officially ended in January 2014, and achieved most of the goals set in the original proposal (some deviations were foreseen, and are bound to happen in case of long-term projects). Some follow-up projects are still ongoing (led by me or by the other fellows who were hired to work on the funded project).

I have received full support from my host institute (INAF – Astronomical Observatory of Trieste), but carrying out the project in Italy has not always been easy. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy is heavy and sometimes definitely anachronistic. The daily administrative burden on Italian researchers is significant, and the average salary very low compared to other European countries. This inevitably causes delays, complications, and frustration. In addition, while other European countries have supported ERC grantees with, for instance, additional funding or simply by officially recognizing the excellence of their research with promotions and/or salary increases, no similar initiative has been undertaken in Italian research institutes.

Needless to say, the EU grant has been very important for my career. It allowed me to pursue my research projects independently, to set up my own small research group, and to demonstrate that I have acquired the knowledge, expertise, and independence to manage such a group. The success of the project is demonstrated by the large number of citations that our work has received in the past five years, as well as by invitation to present related work at numerous international conferences.

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